With chunks of meteorites fetching thousands of dollars on the commercial market, news of the spectacular meteor that soared over parts of Maryland and Pennsylvania early Monday has touched off a cosmic treasure hunt.
Professional meteorite hunters and collectors are scrambling to track down, grab (or buy if they must) any pieces of the Mason-Dixon meteor that might have survived the fall to Earth.
"This is the Super Bowl," Steve "Meteorite Man" Arnold said Wednesday night after flying in from Arkansas to join the hunt. Meteorites can sell for hundreds of dollars per gram, he said, making some worth far more than their weight in gold, which now sells for about $30 a gram.
There is some scientific interest, he insisted; he gives 20 percent of his finds to scientists. And "there is a real mix of the fun and the treasure hunt." But it is mostly a race for the money. "It is an entrepreneurial effort," he said.
Before anyone begins tramping the fields and farms, however, "the race is to get information while people have it, while they can remember," he said.
A full-time meteorite hunter and dealer for 17 years, Arnold, 42, learned soon after landing at BWI-Marshall Airport that at least one competing team was working to get a fix on where the meteor hit.
Others across the country, including Elton Jones, a longtime field investigator in Knoxville, Tenn., were poring over sighting reports to the American Meteor Society and blog posts to reconstruct the meteor's path and pinpoint its likely impact zone.
Others tried to cash in from afar. Don Stimpson, a meteorite dealer in Kansas, sent a notice for posting on The Baltimore Sun's Weather Blog: "Did you know meteorites that fall on your land are valuable and belong to you! If you want discreet, immediate payment for meteorites, contact ..."
After a five-year drought, this is the sixth meteorite hunt Arnold has joined in the past year, he said. But the best lead anyone had on the meteorite's whereabouts at mid-week was a few seconds of video from a security camera at a rural water pumping station southwest of York, Pa.
The murky images showed an empty driveway and a distant streetlight. Seconds later, the sky above the camera and a bit to the right begins to glow. A brilliant light drops across the frame, flares, dims and falls behind a row of trees. But how far behind? A mile? Ten?
Arnold arrived at the pumping station Wednesday evening in a safari shirt and cargo pants. Also on hand was York Water Co. President and CEO Jeffrey R. Hines. It was Hines who spotted the meteor on his security tape and released it to news media.
Also there was Bob Melisso, a California-based TV producer who flew in to film Arnold's search for eventual broadcast, they hope, on Meteorite Men, the Science Channel program on which Arnold co-stars.
Aligning his view with that of the security camera, Arnold called up Hines' security footage on his laptop to get a clear, daylight fix on where the meteor fell.
Then he went to work with a map and compass, trying to lay a corresponding line on the map, extending it beyond the trees to where any meteorites would have fallen.
His line appeared to head east from the pumping station. "East-ish," Arnold corrected. "I'm trying to figure out what the zero-degree line is from here [the camera] to here [pointing to the trees], and then head that way five, 10 or 100 miles to find some intersecting line."
That second intersecting line would have to be drawn from another security camera image, or some other observation, which he did not yet have. With two, or better still three lines of sight to where the meteor fell, he could triangulate and narrow the ground search to a few square miles.
Of course, he acknowledged, "we could intersect and not find anything. When meteors come in, they break up." They can burn to dust. Or, as the air slows them, smaller pieces drop away and larger, heavier chunks go farther. That spreads the meteorites into a "strewn field" that could be a mile wide and five miles long, making the search on the ground even harder.
There was one more intriguing bit of evidence that attracted the hunters' attention.
Michael R. Hankey, 37, a software developer and amateur astronomer in Freeland, near the Pennsylvania line, appears to have captured a telescope image of the meteor. And since he sent his pictures to local TV stations and posted them online, the meteorite hunters have been all over him.
An astrophotographer for just six months, Hankey said his photographic coup was "all luck and very little skill."
He was taking a series of five, three-minute exposures of the Andromeda galaxy early Monday as it rose above his northeast horizon. While his equipment carried out the programmed exposures outdoors, Hankey went inside - and missed seeing the meteor with his own eyes.
"I was in the family room when I heard a huge boom and the house shook," he recalled. "About a year ago we had an earthquake. This was similar ... but I didn't think it was an earthquake."
It was about 1:10 a.m. Hankey realized later that the noise was a sonic boom, created by the meteor's supersonic entry into the denser layers of the atmosphere, perhaps 50 miles up. Many heard and felt it in northern Harford and Baltimore counties, and in York County, arriving a minute or less after the meteor's brilliant flash.
Sonic booms fade away about 40 miles from their source, Arnold said, so they help meteorite hunters narrow their search for an impact zone. They also reassure him that something solid really was falling, slowing and quite likely to hit the ground.
All Hankey knew early Monday was that his image of Andromeda was streaked and spoiled. But a text message from a friend after daylight revealed the unlikely truth: He had captured the meteor's fall in his telescope's camera.
On closer inspection, the trail of light across the image seemed to widen and thin out - the meteor flaring and cooling as it fell. And there were several parallel streaks - as many as seven distinct chunks of rock headed for the ground.
After his news broke, Hankey said, "my e-mail boxes lit up. Meteor hunters called me and wanted to come out to my house." Sky & Telescope magazine and TV reporters also called. And Steve Arnold drove to the house on Thursday for a closer look.
"These guys are all a little crazy and super secretive," Hankey said of the hunters. "One of the guys was, like, 'We don't want you talking to anybody about this. Keep it quiet. If we find anything, we'll give you a piece and give you credit.' "
"That's a little weird," he said.
But there could be big money in the balance, and the clock is ticking. The grass and corn are growing. Rain could bury meteorites in mud and start them rusting, making them harder to find and less valuable.
"Terrestrialization," Arnold calls it. "The more pristine, the better."
On the other hand, he said, there's a possibility that rain will reveal a deep-space treasure in someone's attic. "There's a chance someone's house got a hole popped in it. We'll just have to wait until it rains to see if they've got a leak."